Wednesday, September 27, 2017

How to fail up in child welfare: Bobby Cagle oversaw a foster-care panic when he ran child welfare in Georgia. Now he’s going to run child welfare in Los Angeles

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors
            In November, 2016, when the federal government finally released state-by-state data on the number of children trapped in foster care the year before (yes, the feds release the data more than a year after they get it) the Associated Press reported on the grim news this way:

            The number of U.S. children in foster care is climbing after a sustained decline, but just five states account for nearly two-thirds of the recent increase.

            Among those states, the one with the worst record – the one in which the number of children in foster care increased at the highest rate – was Georgia.

According to the state’s own data, the number of children trapped in foster care on any given day skyrocketed 64 percent from 8,136 in September 2013 to 13,266 just three years later. As of March, 2017, the most recent month for which data are available, the figure had reached 13,348.

UPDATE, NOV. 30, 2017: The federal government has just released state-by-state figures for 2016. Once again, Georgia's performance was dismal. In fact, Georgia alone was responsible for more than 14 percent of the entire nationwide increase in the number of children trapped in foster care on any given day.

            There was a similar surge in entries into foster care – the number of children taken from their parents over a course of year. That figure increased more than 45 percent from 2013 to 2016.

            What’s been happening in Georgia since the end of 2013, the sharp, sudden surge in the number of children taken away and the number of children trapped in foster care, is a classic foster-care panic. And the man in charge of the Georgia child welfare system for almost this entire time was Bobby Cagle.

Now, Cagle has a new job. By a vote of 3 to 2, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors turned down a candidate who almost certainly would have been superior – JooYeun Chang – and decided to let Cagle bring his take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare to the largest locally-run public child welfare agency in the country, the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS).

Los Angeles already tears apart families at a rate far above the average for America's biggest cities and their surrounding counties. Now the Supervisors are bringing in someone likely to make that record even worse.

Before Cagle, Georgia was making progress

            Before Cagle took over, Georgia had reduced its rates of foster care placement and removal to among the lowest in the country. So I’m sure Cagle’s defenders will rush to haul out the most tired cliché in child welfare and inform us that the “pendulum” had swung too far.

            But the evidence says otherwise. From 2006 through 2013, even as the number of Georgia children in foster care steadily declined, the key measure of child safety – the rate at which children who have been abused or neglected are maltreated again – also declined. In other words, child safety improved. In contrast, during the years of foster-care panic this measure has gotten worse.

            So why the foster-care panic?

Of course Georgia officials cited drug abuse, the all-purpose excuse for skyrocketing foster care. But many states have drug problems, they don’t all let their foster-care populations increase by more than 64 percent. And while the problem of drug abuse, like the problem of child abuse, is serious and real, it does not follow that the knee-jerk solution needs to be tearing apart families.

That is a lesson we should have learned from a previous “drug plague” – crack cocaine. University of Florida researchers studied two groups of children born with cocaine in their systems; one group was placed in foster care, another left with birth mothers able to care for them.  After six months, the babies were tested using all the usual measures of infant development: rolling over, sitting up, reaching out.  Typically, the children placed with their birth mothers did better.  For the foster children, the separation from their mothers was more toxic than the cocaine.

It is extremely difficult to take a swing at so-called “bad mothers” without the blow landing on their children. That doesn’t mean we can simply leave children with hopelessly addicted parents.  But it does mean that in most cases, drug treatment for the mother is a better option than foster care for the child. 

No, it's not just drugs

But Georgia officials also cited two other reasons. Georgia is a state-run child welfare system, but individual county offices each had their own child abuse hotlines. In 2013, Georgia created a single, centralized hotline with one statewide number. Reports alleging child abuse increased sharply – presumably because of all the attendant publicity. Such publicity typically is accompanied by pleas to report anything and everything no matter how absurd.

People do just that. So there should have been greater skepticism about reports and more careful screening.  In Pennsylvania, for example, where as in California, individual counties run child welfare, after the legislature passed a series of feel-good laws in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal, reports alleging child abuse soared.  In Philadelphia, which has weak leadership, entries into foster care soared, too. But not in Pittsburgh, where the head of the county human services agency understood that the increase was likely to consist largely of false reports and trivial cases.

There is no evidence that Cagle brought the same critical eye to the surge in reports in Georgia. That’s probably because of the third factor.

As AP put it “Another factor [in Georgia] has been public outrage over some highly publicized cases in which children died from severe abuse even though caseworkers had prior indications they were at risk.”

That is, of course, the classic trigger for foster-care panics. And that is where leadership makes all the difference. Instead of refusing to be stampeded into tearing apart more families needlessly, Cagle threw gasoline on the fire. He drastically curbed a program to divert what appeared to be less serious cases to voluntary help, instead of launching full-scale child abuse investigations.  True, not every study has found that this approach, commonly called “differential response” is safe.  Only 25 out of 26 did -- and many found that safety improved.

Cagle’s move further strained caseworkers, leaving them less time to give any case the careful attention it needs. That may explain why the key measure of child safety, reabuse of children known-to-the-system, actually has worsened during the foster-care panic.

The same lousy system, only bigger

Cagle’s response: a caseworker hiring binge. But if all you do is hire more workers, even as you undermine safeguards against needless removal, all you get is the same lousy system only bigger.

The foster-care panic also may have contributed to the death of a two-year-old foster child, Laila Marie Daniel. A foster-care panic creates an artificial “shortage” of foster homes, making caseworkers less likely to scrutinize those homes carefully. But while Cagle was quick to suggest that deaths of children at the hands of birth parents required systemic changes, such as curbing differential response, he dismissed the Daniel case as an aberration and fired the caseworker and supervisor handling the case.

So why would a track record like this appeal to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors?  Because Cagle is good at doing what a majority of Supervisors appear to cherish most: placating politicians and media.

Anything that smacks of “cracking down on child abuse” is popular with a press and public that reacts, rightly, with shock and horror at what a few sadistic brutes do to their children, but is largely unaware or uninterested in the enormous harm that needless foster care does in cases that are far more typical, such as cases in which family poverty is confused with “neglect.” Two massive studies have found that in typical child welfare cases children left in their own homes typically fare better even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care.

So the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which fanned the flames of foster-care panic in Georgia much as Garrett Therolf did did when he covered that beat for the Los Angeles Times, gave Cagle a fond farewell when the L.A. appointment was announced. The quote from “Together Georgia,” a trade association for the state’s foster-care providers, is particularly gushy.

While placating the press, the pols, and the providers, Cagle made caseworkers happy by hiring more of them and by doing something genuinely constructive, giving them a raise.  But he also wasted money on a giant pay raise for foster parents – in some cases raising their pay by more than 60 percent.  That same money could have been used for child care and rent subsidies so parents didn’t lose their children in the first place because of poverty.

So it’s clear that Bobby Cagle knows how to make journalists, politicians and foster-care agencies happy. But the impoverished families of Los Angeles now have even more reason to be afraid of DCFS.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Yes, NYC, there IS a foster care panic. The Mayor’s own “Management Report” proves it

Several posts to this Blog have documented the desperate efforts of New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services to pretend there has been no foster-care panic – no sharp spike in children torn from their families and consigned to foster care – in the wake of the death of Zymere Perkins in late September, 2016.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's annual
"Mayor's Management Report" confirms the
foster-care panic.
Officials have stumbled all over themselves – and contradicted each other. ACS Commissioner David Hansell said no, there’s been no increase at all, then a deputy would say: Well, yes, there’s been an increase, but at no greater rate than the increase in reports alleging child abuse or neglect.  (Because of the Sandusky Rule, discussed in detail here, that would still indicate a foster-care panic.) Then still another official would contradict them both.

But now we have the definitive word from all of these officials’ boss: Mayor Bill de Blasio. In comes in the form of the section about ACS in the annual Mayor’s Management Report, an exhaustive annual compendium of stats and spin.  The most recent report covers the city’s last full fiscal year, which ran from July 1, 2016 through June 30 2017.

According to this report, during that time period:

● Reports alleging child abuse or neglect increased by 7.2 percent.

● But entries into foster care soared by 13 percent – the first year-to-year increase since 2009.

So yes, there is a foster-care panic, and no it’s not because of increased reports alleging abuse or neglect.

And there were other disturbing data:

● The number of families receiving services to keep children out of foster care dropped.

● The proportion of allegations that workers deemed “indicated” – which means only that the worker checked a box on a form indicating s/he thinks there is “some credible evidence” there was abuse or neglect, even if there is more evidence of innocence, – is up sharply.  (The New York standard for declaring a case “indicated” is even lower than most states.)

This often happens during a foster-care panic, even though indication or substantiation rates actually should go down because during a panic anyone and everyone is encouraged to report anything and everything, no matter how absurd.

And perhaps most alarming: The time period covered includes nearly three months before Zymere Perkins died, in other words, three months before the panic began, so it does not reflect the full extent of the panic.

That a lot of these removals are unnecessary is made abundantly clear by the  fact that, during the years that entries into foster care declined, data show no compromise of child safety; in fact, key safety indicators improved,

The extent of unnecessary removal also is aptly illustrated by the New York Times story about foster care as the new “Jane Crow.”

And the panic appears to be continuing.  The latest monthly report from ACS, which includes July, 2017 the first month of the new fiscal year shows that removals to foster care are up significantly over the same month in 2016.  So everything that Times story found probably is getting worse.

Monday, September 25, 2017

NCCPR in Youth Today: Abuse in foster care: Research vs. the child welfare system's alternative facts

Suppose, hypothetically, you could gather in one room 333 former foster children. Now, suppose you asked how many of them had been abused while in foster care. Does anyone seriously believe that only one of those 333 former foster children would raise her or his hand?
Both common sense and an overwhelming mass of evidence says: Of course not.
But, apparently, Wendy Rickman wants us to believe it. That’s frightening, because Rickman is a high-ranking official in a state child welfare agency. She runs the division of adult, children and family services for the Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS).

Friday, September 1, 2017

What some lawyers for New York City’s child welfare agency REALLY think of the people they see in Family Court

The lawyers who represent the New York City child welfare agency in Family Court have been known to complain about how much work they have to do.  But some of them seem to have a lot of time on their hands.

The New York Times reports that three lawyers for the city’s Administration for Children’s Services and a fourth from the Legal Aid Society, which represents children in child welfare cases, took pictures of people in Family Court, probably parents and other adult family members, then posted the pictures on Facebook and exchanged crude, demeaning banter about the attire of those they photographed.

According to the Times:
 State law … prohibits taking photographs inside a courthouse, including hallways, without permission of the chief administrator of courts. The photos, including one of an obese woman with an emoji superimposed over her face, appeared to have been taken surreptitiously.

ACS Commissioner David Hansell issued the customary denunciation of this behavior, telling the Times that it is “completely inconsistent with our agency culture and expectations…”

But is it?

On the one hand, there are a lot of lawyers working for ACS. There is no evidence that all, or even most of them think this way.

But what does it say about the culture at ACS that even some lawyers felt free to engage in this behavior – and post the results on Facebook? Apparently they did not fear discipline, or even censure from their peers.


● Anthropologist Tina Lee, who spent 14 months “embedded” with all key players in the New York City system wrote in her book, Catching a Case:

I often … witnessed disrespectful or callous comments made about parents and families by attorneys between cases or in hallways and elevators. … I heard attorneys and court officers openly make fun of parents and their problems between cases…

● Lee did her field work at ACS and Family Court in 2008. But Joyce McMillan, Director of Programming for New York’s Child Welfare Organizing Project says:

It has changed only  a little.  Parents still voice concerns about how they treated regularly. … I have great concern that the legal representatives in this article were so comfortable with their behavior they posted it on social media. This level of disrespect is indicative of a culture that is detrimental to preserving families.

● This story comes just weeks after the Times story about foster care as the new “Jane Crow” – documenting case after case of needless removal of children, rooted in biases against poor people, especially people of color.

● And, of course, Study after study documents both the racial bias and the class bias built into the American child welfare system.

Why should the lawyers be different?

Why should we expect ACS lawyers to be different from the “Blogger of the Year” for the so-called Chronicle of Social Change, an online child welfare trade journal, who, in criticizing the Times story, dredged up an odious racial stereotype

As she reminds us in every column she writes, the “Blogger of the Year” was a social worker for the Washington, D.C. child welfare agency for five years.  The editors of the Chronicle, the Fox News of child welfare, have not apologized or in any way distanced themselves from her hateful column.

And, once again, I hope the rest of America will keep in mind that most systems are worse than the one in New York City.

So the next time New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio or a member of the New York State Legislature whines about judges refusing to simply rubber-stamp ACS recommendations to tear apart families, keep in mind the baggage that some ACS caseworkers and some ACS lawyers are dragging into the courtroom with them.